COX'S BAZAR (Bangladesh) • Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh could die due to a lack of food, shelter and water, given the huge numbers fleeing violence in Myanmar, an aid agency warned yesterday, as the authorities began moving people to camps to streamline the distribution of help.
More than 400,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled from Myanmar's western Rakhine state to Bangladesh in an effort to escape a military offensive that the United Nations has branded a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing".
"Many people are arriving hungry, exhausted, and with no food or water," said Mr Mark Pierce, Bangladesh country director for aid agency Save the Children, in a statement. "I'm particularly worried that the demand for food, shelter, water and basic hygiene support is not being met due to the sheer number of people in need. If families can't meet their basic needs, the suffering will get even worse and lives could be lost."
Bangladesh has for decades faced influxes of Rohingya refugees fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are regarded as illegal migrants. It was already home to 400,000 Rohingya refugees before the latest crisis erupted on Aug 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts and an army camp in the western state of Rakhine, killing a dozen people.
Mr Pierce said the humanitarian response needed to be rapidly scaled up, adding: "That can only be done if the international community steps up funding."
Rights monitors and fleeing Rohingya refugees say that Myanmar security forces and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes responded to the Aug 25 insurgent attacks with a campaign of violence and arson aimed at driving out the Muslim population. Myanmar rejects the allegation, saying its security forces are carrying out clearance operations against the insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which claimed responsibility for the August attacks.
Many people are arriving hungry, exhausted, and with no food or water. I'm particularly worried that the demand for food, shelter, water and basic hygiene support is not being met due to the sheer number of people in need. If families can't meet their basic needs, the suffering will get even worse and lives could be lost.
MR MARK PIERCE, Bangladesh country director for aid agency Save the Children, on the influx of Rohingya refugees.
The Myanmar government has declared the group a terrorist organisation and accused it of setting the fires and attacking civilians.
Bangladesh border guards said the flow of refugees leaving Myanmar had eased over the past day, apparently because bad weather had discouraged people from taking to boats to reach Bangladesh. Heavy rain has turned roads into mud, leaving refugees to huddle under shelters of bamboo and plastic sheets by the roadside.
The Bangladesh authorities said they have also started moving an estimated 100,000 Rohingya living by the roads to camps that have been designated as aid points.
"We're not allowing any distribution to anyone from the side of the road," said district government official Kazi Abdur Rahman. "We want to convince them there's everything in the camp and nothing here."
A big new camp has been planned, but it is unclear how long it would take to be built.
"People are living in these muddy, awful conditions. You have to get them to some sort of space where aid can be delivered," said Mr Chris Lom of the International Organisation for Migration. "Clean water and sanitation can only be delivered in a structured environment."
According to Myanmar, more than 430 people have been killed, most of them insurgents, and about 30,000 non-Muslim villagers have been displaced.
Myanmar government leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced a barrage of criticism from abroad for not stopping the violence. The military, however, remains in full control of the security policy and there is little sympathy for the Rohingya in a country where the end of army rule has unleashed old animosities.
Ms Suu Kyi is due to make her first address to the nation on the crisis tomorrow.
In a BBC interview, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the stakes were high for the speech, calling it a "last chance" to stop the unfolding humanitarian calamity.
"If she does not reverse the situation now, then I think the tragedy will be absolutely horrible, and unfortunately then I don't see how this can be reversed in the future," he said.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE